TAMPA — One of the most engaging moments in The B-Sides, a remarkable composition by Mason Bates for orchestra and electronica performed by the Florida Orchestra this weekend, comes through the sandpaper voice of astronaut Edward White, the first American to step out of a capsule and into space. White's terse exchanges in 1965 with Mission Control, accompanied by unpredictable and ambient sounds coming from Houston and the orchestra and space, reflect the fear and exhilaration in taking necessary risks.
Symphonie Fantastique, which opened at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, recognizes that ambition in Hector Berlioz, whose 1830 concerto by that name also leaned forward in time, and Igor Stravinsky's Scherzo Fantastique. All three composers wrote these breakout works in their late 20s.
Bates, a 40-year-old former DJ with a Ph.D in composition, has already changed music with his blend of electronic and conventional forms. He got the tapes from NASA to anchor the space walk segment, Gemini in the Solar Wind, the third movement of five. It represents the apogee of creative venture and has the effect of a jolt of caffeine, the sudden awakening of an entirely new section of brain.
The B-Sides opens with Broom of the System, a reference to the percussive undercurrent of a clock, not to mention the amplified work of an actual broom. The score called in equal parts from woodwinds and horns, sandpaper blocks and an oil drum, and a patter of electronic blips from a laptop that seem irregular until they repeat. With sounds coming from every angle, it can't be easy to conduct. Michael Francis handled that task with an uncharacteristically metronomic approach, and asked the orchestra to keep perfect time and an equally constant intensity. Then he picked his spots and attacked. The result was perhaps the most exciting modern piece of the season thus far.
Symphonie Fantastique put the orchestra back on more familiar turf, though Berlioz also pioneered sonorities. The work, created out of his obsession with an Irish actress he had never met, uses an array of instruments and colors unprecedented at the time. The orchestra replicated the dreamy harps, church bells, violins played with the back side of the bow and an off-stage oboe.
Toward the end of Francis' second season as music director, the notion that the orchestra has strengthened under his watch is no longer a matter of speculation. It's obvious. Musicians gravitate toward a single sound like metal fragments to a magnet. Less certain are the areas of future improvement. It is possible to imagine an edge even more bloodthirsty, and reflective interludes that seem more confident and less obedient.
This Berlioz performance paid homage to the inspiration, in this case of a composer who transformed his psychological disturbances into art. (The world should be thankful he did; Belioz later embarked on a trip to murder another woman who had withdrawn from him and her mother, but changed his mind halfway there.)
The concert began with the colorful Scherzo Fantastique, which prompted Sergei Diaghilev to commission a ballet from the young Stravinsky. It narrates the activity of a beehive, with furious strings and an alto flute heralding the rise of the queen bee and the death of her mate. The ballet connection soon led Stravinsky to compose his best- known work, The Firebird.
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